Trip from Salta to Molinos with excursion in Los Cardones national Park

April 17th, 2016 

Getting to Puna de Atacama from Salta it's not just an annoying transfer, but a real tour that allows to appreciate most of the scenic and natural beauty of northern Argentina. The trip itinerary presented on this page allows to visit also Los Cardones National Park and its ultra-secular forest of giant cacti (the second in the world for number of cactus), as well as several traditional villages such as Cachi and Molinos.

Pre-andean mountains
The journey from Salta to Puna de Atacama begins through the green pre-Andean mountain ranges, where the vegetation is particularly lush. In fact, these mountains are a barrier to the clouds coming from the Atlantic Ocean, with most rain falling along the eastern slopes.
Proceeding towards west, after crossing the first mountain range, the climate becomes progressively drier with the vegetation changing to small shrubs and cacti.
Trichocereus pasacana Cacti of Argentina
Cactus Cacti have adapted to the particularly dry climatic conditions of the pre-Andean regions in Argentina, Chile and Bolivia, predominantly at altitudes between 2000 and 3000 meters, though it is often possible to find many plants at lower and higher altitudes too. In these photos we can observe majestic specimens of Trichocereus pasacana, many of which are probably secular.
Cereus pasacana Echinopsis atacamensis ssp. Pasacana
Photo of Trichocereus pasacana. Unfortunately there is some confusion about the taxonomy of cacti: some botanists indicate this species as Trichocereus pasacana, others as Cereus pasacana, and others more as Echinopsis atacamensis ssp. Pasacana (basically, a sub-specie of "Cardones" cactus that we will observe later). Although at first glance the cactus may all seem to be the same, in reality there are always more or less obvious differences that justify a classification in different genres, species or subspecies.
Cuesta de Obispo Mountains stopping the clouds
The journey to the heart of the Andes continues along a pass at 3400 meters on Cuesta de Obispo where, watching in the distance (right picture), we can see that most of the clouds are blocked by the first Pre-Andean mountain range.
Sanctuary Piedra del Molino
At the top of the pass, along the Cuesta de Obispo, there is a small shrine and a large mill stone (Piedra del Molino), which is a source of debate on the reason why such stone is located there, as there is no mill in the area.
Guanacos Guanaco
Shortly after the pass, I encountered a small group of guanacos, the only guanacos observed throughout the trip in Argentina. Unfortunately this animal has been decimated in the past decades for its wool, skin and meat.
Northern Argentina

Once on the opposite side of the mountain, below 3000 meters, the landscape becomes even more arid and the first Cardones cactus beginning to appear.
Cacti in Argentina Salta region
Giant cactus
A short hike along a path reveals a very arid environment rich in rocks of various colors and populated mainly by Cardones cacti and low shrubs.
Desert in Argentina
If you like succulent plants, especially cacti, the north-western of Argentina is one of the best places in the world to find them in their natural habitat. As we will be able to observe later, the species present are not limited to giant specimens only, but observing the ground carefully, many miniature plants can be noted, some of which are rare and not found in other parts of the world.
The rest of the vegetation is composed of low bushes and there are no trees.
Vegetation in northern Argentina Cardones cacti
Echinopsis atacamensis Los Cardones
Los Cardones national park Giant cacti
Photos of Los Cardones. The Los Cardones National Park has been set up to protect an area of 650 square kilometres that houses the world's second cactus forest by number of specimens (the first is in Arizona, USA). The most common cactus here is the Echinopsis atacamensis, a plant that can reach a height of 10 meters and an age of several centuries.
Colorful mountains
The greater density of Cardones cacti lies predominantly in the small area of the national park: after just a few kilometres, they disappear completely.
Peppers left to dry Peppers

Continuing the journey to the destination of the day (Molinos), I cross farms where the main product is a particular type of pepper, used to produce spices. April is generally the harvest time and it is not unusual to see them exposed on the ground to complete the drying process.
Cachi is a picturesque village in northwestern Argentina, in the province of Salta, which houses about 5000 inhabitants and shows a beautiful colonial style architecture.
Cachi church
The interior of the church in Cachi dates back to the 16th century and is considered a national historic monument. The picture on the right shows a confessional unique in its kind, as it is entirely built with the wood from Cardones cactus (Echinopsis atacamensis).
Confessional made with cactus wood
Dog sleeping
Cachi (Argentina)
The buildings of Cachi are low with a white painted fa├žade. Among the streets of the town it is quite common to find dogs resting along the sidewalks.
Cactus wood
Cactus wood yet again used as a decorative element. It can be recognized from the wood of ordinary trees, as it has numerous holes that, when the plant is alive, are filled with the spongy tissue where the water is stored.
Colonial architecture in Argentina

Photos of Cachi in northern Argentina, province of Salta.
Leveled sidewalk
Cachi's sidewalks are sometimes raised, as these were built at horse-drawn carriage level.
Making a poncho Poncho
The tour in the province of Salta in northern Argentina continues with an interesting visit to a textile center in the Calchaquies valley, where poncho and other garments are made using different types of wool. The poncho worn by Pope John Paul II, during his visit to Salta in 1987, was made here.
Seclantas Our lady of Carmine
Seclantas is another pretty village, house the cathedral of Our Lady of the Carmine.
Molinos (Argentina) Molinos church
After an intense day of fabulous landscapes, cacti and traditional villages, I finally arrive in the quiet town of Molinos and its characteristic church.
Molinos Hacienda de Molinos
Hacienda de Molinos hotel

The overnight stay is set in the picturesque and comfortable Hacienda de Molinos, an old farm restored and converted into a hotel.

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